War Comes Home in Vaughan & Skroce’s Allegorical ‘We Stand On Guard’
Political allegories don’t need to be subtle in order to be effective. Animal Farm, one of the most famous political allegories of all time, is nothing if not blunt. George Orwell was not interested in seeing how clever he could be, or who might pick up on minor hints. He intended “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole” in a novel that screams and rages at the problems perceived by its author. That combination of the political and artistic resulted in a work whose purpose is clear even 26 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and 62 years after the death of Joseph Stalin.
Political allegory is a genre not unfamiliar to comics writer Brian K. Vaughan. Vaughan and artist Nico Henrichon published Pride of Baghdad in 2006. This single volume follows a family of lions freed from the Baghdad Zoo as a result of the American invasion in 2003. The family reflects a variety of Iraqi perspectives confronting the massive change facing the country. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ series Ex Machina discarded allegorical elements altogether, following fictional New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred to tackle post-9/11 American politics directly. Politics have always been a significant element in Vaughan’s independent work, as books like Y: The Last Man and Saga have consistently delved into gender, war, and personal identity.
Vaughan’s newest series, We Stand On Guard with artist Steve Skroce, returns the writer to the realm of political allegory in the blunt tradition of Orwell’s greatest novels. Here Vaughan and Skroce are addressing the 2003 Invasion of Iraq through a science fiction narrative. We Stand On Guard takes place about 100 years in the future when the United States invades Canada after the White House is bombed in a drone strike from an unknown source. The story jumps from the initial invasion to 12 years in the future when the United States occupies Canada and only small bands of freedom fighters struggle against the American troops.
When We Stand On Guard #1 moves 12 years into the future from the invasion of Canada in 2112 to resistance in 2124, the connection between this story and America’s invasion of Iraq becomes impossible to deny. We Stand On Guard is being published in 2015, twelve years after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Without additional context, this could be considered a coincidence, but given all of the other connections between these real and fictional events, it becomes an obvious choice on Vaughan and Skroce’s behalf.
The opening pages of We Stand On Guard #1 mirror the experience of watching the September 11 attacks in front of a television. I was only 11 when those events unfolded, but Vaughan and Skroce’s depiction accurately captures the confusion and muted panic of being in a Nebraskan (or in this, Canadian) household. The father of a nuclear family of four says, “They’re just replaying the same damn video over and over” as a fiery White House is lit up in their living room. Children Tommy and Amber ask their parents for context that they cannot provide. No one in the house knows who has committed the attack, but there is a recognition that the world has changed.
Only moments later the United States’ invasion of Canada begins. A massive spread shows dozens of missiles falling on Ottawa, the capital of Canada, in a display designed to shock and awe. Even from this specific perspective it is clear that Canada is not the perpetrator of the attack on the United States. The mother of this family reveals herself to be both a government figure and knowledgeable about military interests. She rebukes her son’s question about whether Canada could be responsible, saying, “I could lose my security clearance if people heard you spouting that kind of nonsense.” Despite the clear lack of evidence regarding Canadian involvement, the invasion has begun, and both parents are killed.
This unjustified invasion by American forces causes massive suffering, as civilians are killed throughout Ottawa. The massive loss of life reflects the estimated 7,500 civilian deaths during the initial invasion of Iraq. (Statistics via Iraq Body Count.) These deaths have only been compounded in the subsequent 12 years. According to U.S. Documents released by WikiLeaks, there have been a total of 109,032 Iraqi deaths, 66,801 of which are classified as civilians.
The brief, successful invasion of Canada is not motivated by justifiable retaliation, but it is not without motives. The chief of the resistance calls out one motive, saying, “They’ve never given a damn about land. This has only ever been about our water.” The quest for natural resources, specifically one that Canada has in abundance, draws a clear parallel to accusations that America invaded Iraq for its rich oil reserves. This seems even more clear against the bleak landscape created by Skroce. Desert is replaced by swaths of snow and ice.
Vaughan and Skroce include some commentary on how America’s various engagements in the Middle East have developed as well. One Canadian insurgent acknowledges the inefficacy of torture. Drones are found in multiple forms throughout the issue. In the second half of the issue, Canadians fight both mechanical dogs (literal dogs of war) and much larger machines of war that are typically unmanned. It is the first appearance of a drone that hits closest to home though. When the family’s apartment is bombed, a flying drone briefly hovers outside looking onto the carnage it has created before turning away to continue its mission.
This brief sequence distills Vaughan and Skroce’s intent in We Stand On Guard, to show Americans as the antagonists in this conflict (and in the Invasion of Iraq). Skroce’s depiction of American military forces as robots makes it significantly easier for American readers to root for and sympathize with Canadians from the start. The closest these cold, steel drones come to resembling living things is in rough approximations of dogs or gorillas. Not a single American soldier is seen until the final sequence of We Stand On Guard #1.
The reveal of an American soldier is set up through the death of another character, Canadian insurgent Booth. Booth is given more definition and dialogue than any of the other insurgents encountered by Amber, and everything about him is designed to pander to Americans and comic readers. He offers an extended monologue concerning his love for Superman that takes a shot at DC Comics and places an emphasis on comic artists. Booth is made to be the most likable and relatable figure for the presumed audience of We Stand On Guard. Then the first time an American appears, he kills Booth. After more than 30 pages of American forces destroying cities, threatening people, and killing the most likable character in the story, it is easy to see real American soldiers as the antagonists in this scenario.
Here is the angry heart of We Stand On Guard. It is a role reversal accusing the United States of crimes committed in Iraq. There is no justification or sympathy lent to invaders. Instead, the perspective is purely that of the invaded. Facts and circumstances are not exact, but are far too close to deny. The blood and suffering shed on these pages are meant to reflect those of Iraqi civilians over the past 12 years, and they are every bit as anger-inducing in fiction as they ought to be in reality.
Skroce’s cover to We Stand On Guard holds up one more mirror, showing a Canadian flag hanging over rubble in the same manner as a famous photograph taken at the wreckage of the World Trade Center on 9/11. In this instance the flag is not that of the nation who was first attacked, but of the nation invaded in response. The tragedy of Ottawa (a stand-in for Baghdad) is shown as no less horrific than the attack upon America.
There is also an element of race at play here. In Pride of Baghdad, Henrichon depicts the protagonists as anthropomorphized lions. Here Skroce depicts them as Canadians. In both instances, Vaughan has attempted to create sympathy for Iraqi stand-ins by removing any racial element that might be distancing for a mostly white audience. The protagonists are either beloved animals or entirely white (with the sole exception of black actor Les in We Stand On Guard).
Vaughan and Skroce expect us to be more willing to show concern for fictional lions or Canadians than real Iraqis. Given the overwhelming apathy I have encountered towards Iraqi casualties growing up in post-9/11 America, Vaughan isn’t wrong. The response to deaths caused by bombings, drones, and military operations in Iraq has hovered between silence and brief murmurs. Whether this is caused by differences in race, religion, or nationality, it speaks to a fundamental and troubling lack of sympathy.
We Stand On Guard exhibits elements of science fiction, adventure, and war stories, but it is one thing before all of these: political allegory. Vaughan and Skroce’s focus is clear. This is a story about the 2003 Invasion of Iraq told only under the thinnest of sci-fi veils, and it is a story filled with anger. The deaths and destruction on display are viscerally detailed. Fathers are torn to pieces, children are orphaned, cities are reduced to rubble, and comics fans are shot to death. Nothing about what is happening in Canada here is acceptable.
So why does that perspective not translate to reality?